AVAILABLE ON REGION A BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 120 min/ 101 min theatrical cut
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Aaron Boone dreams of Midian, a city beneath a cemetery where monsters live and are accepted. At the request of girlfriend Lori, Boone is seeing psychotherapist Dr. Phillip K. Decker, who convinces Boone that he murdered six families, acts that Decker, a serial killer, actually did himself and he’s trying to frame Boone for them. Struck by a truck whilst under LSD given to him by Decker and taken to a hospital, Boone meets Narcisse, who seeks to enter Midian and tears off his own face. Escaping, he finds his way to Midian and encounters two of the ‘Nightbreed’, one of whom bites him. Boone flees and runs straight into a squad of policemen who gun him down….
I guess I’ll be approaching this from a different angle to many others. You see, I’ve always really liked Nightbreed, right from when it first came out and when I had no idea of its troubled production history, even though it eventually became almost the ultimate example of a great movie supposedly ruined by its studio. Yes, its narrative was scattershot [though that can make a film more exciting the first time around because you feel anything can happen], it gave the impression that it had been edited down for the maximum number of showings by day losing some vital connective tissue, and its two central lovers seemed overshadowed by all the mayhem going on around them, but heck, the film was a very cool, action-packed serial killer vs. monsters flick [I mean come on, you got two of the main horror subgenres battling it out, and, even if writer/director Clive Barker clearly prefers monsters to slash, I don’t know why more horror fans don’t love it just for that!], it had lots of terrific creature design, was a story where the monsters were the good guys, and was a very pointed parable about, and a passionate defence of, minorities and ‘outcasts’. Those last points may not be such a big deal now as they’ve been dealt with in films a bit since, and not just in horror – Monsters Inc. and Paranorman being two good examples that are actually ‘kiddie’ animated movies – but I still think Nightbreed does it very well, perhaps because Barker wrote Cabal, the book on which Nightbreed was based, while he was ‘coming out’. In fact, the genius that is Alejandro Jodorowsky claims that the centre of the film is the unconsummated relationship between Boone the hero who becomes a ‘Nightbreed’, and Decker the serial killer, though I can’t say I’ve ever seen that particular aspect myself!
So I never had much of a problem with Nightbreed, which nonetheless failed to please neither critics, mass audiences or horror fans in its initial release, the latter being something that always surprised me considering much of its imagery and themes. Like many horror fans I was impressed with Hellraiser, the film that made Barker’s name in the genre, but I found Nightbreed to be so much richer. Barker actually intended it to be the first part in a trilogy of films that would be, in his words: “the Star Wars of horror movies”. It was a big budget production, shot largely at Pinewood Studios with some scenes on location at Wexham Park Hospital, Slough, Berkshire, UK over several nights and in Calgary, Canada. However, the studio Morgan Creek didn’t seem to like the movie that was being shot, asked for script changes to make the role of Decker larger, and even after it was completed then demanded several sessions of reshoots to alter certain things, most notably the ending, and make the film more like a conventional horror film, while constantly shortening the running time of a film which was originally almost two and a half hours long, prompting editor Richard Marden to leave the project in protest. Nightbreed eventually hit cinemas in a 102 min version which wasn’t well received and certainly made no money, though a small cult following did spring up around the movie, especially when it came to light that the film we saw and, in a few cases, loved, was actually a different beast to the one Barker had intended for us to see.
Much hushed whispering then began to circulate around horror communities about what Barker’s cut of Nightbreed might have been, and then a certain Mark Alan Miller, the guy we should perhaps thank even more than Barker for allowing us lucky sods to now actually own the director’s cut of Nightbreed on Blu-ray, began a search for the missing footage and eventually found it in a corner of Barker’s office. The very rough looking videos comprised of rough assemblies which were pieced together and shown at some conventions to huge excitement from fans – I’ll never forget how thrilled I was when I first read about it – and then another cut which added the extra footage – not in great shape but never mind – to the theatrical cut, was more widely shown. Known as the Cabal Cut, it prompted the creation of the Occupy Midian fan movement which clamoured for a proper release, and eventually all the film’s footage was found in a Warner Bros. storage facility, this time looking very good indeed, and prompting Barker to finally do his director’s cut. It runs two hours, meaning that not all of the footage he shot is in the film. Some fans are already disappointed that two scenes where Decker talks to his mask still remain deleted, and I would have liked to have seen some talked about bits and pieces like a sex scene between two of the Nightbreed [I guess I’m just weird like that] in the film, a scene which isn’t even in the deleted scenes section of Scream Factory’s generally fantastic Blu-ray release of the film, but of course all films have some footage removed, and maybe they would still have been cut in 1990 even if Barker had originally had his way.
Much like the Nightbreed we are familiar with, the Director’s Cut opens with a really weird and jarring scene of ugly monsters running and jumping about in fog before a cemetery gate. Of course, it’s actually just a dream of Aaron Boone’s, the film’s ‘hero’, who is in a serious relationship with a loving girlfriend, Lori, but doesn’t really feel like he belongs to this world and is drawn to Midian, the cemetery where, just possibly, the monsters live. We only get a slight sense of this before we cut to a really effective slasher sequence which I’m surprised isn’t regarded more highly by slash fans. A man wearing a really creepy mask with button eyes and a zipper mouth [I’ve always found the simpler masks to be the most effective] slaughters a married couple while their young son watches through the banister railings on the landing, unable to try to escape because he’s transfixed with fear. Some effective camera angles, subtle yet suspenseful scoring and clever staging where you think you’ve seen more gruesomeness than you actually have make for a tremendous and genuinely frightening horror scene which directorially is one of the best in the film [and may possibly have been influenced by a scene from Once Upon A Time In The West]. The killer, and yes he does [though off-screen] kill the boy, is of course Phillip K. Decker, and he’s played by David Cronenberg, his calm, almost monotone delivery perfect for an emotionless psychopath. Though we’re never given a good reason as to why he hunts the Nightbreed, he’s a terrific creation nonetheless. Unfortunately, he overshadows the Nightbreed for much of the film, something which didn’t used to bother me about the film [which I hadn’t seen in about ten years] but slightly unbalanced it for me this time round.
Nightbreed really has a hell of a lot happen quite early. Boone is drugged, framed for murder, bitten by a Nightbreed, shot dead and resurrected, all in the first third. I wish the film had explored Boone’s feelings of being a walking corpse, but it’s too busy rushing through its story, which admirably refuses time and time again to go down the route you expect, constantly subverting viewer’s expectations, while at times the film really does have a feel of grotesque wonder. Perhaps the highlight of the whole film is when Lori moves through Midian to find Boone. Danny Elfman’s superb score adopts a brilliant combination of jauntyness and wonder, and superbly backs up the images as we are treated to a series of often hideous, horrifying but fascinating tableaux of a succession of monsters going about their business. Barker is asking us to look at ugliness – and boy are some of these things ugly including one fat being whose head is in the middle of the body and another that looks like it’s made of shit – and ask ourselves: is it really that ugly? Meanwhile any attempt to frighten remains the job of Decker, while Boone, though developing werewolf-like tendencies [so he’s basically a zombie/lycanthrope cross], seems to be trapped between two words, Lori being the one thing that pulls him to the ‘human’ world, and he ends up, in a superbly ironic touch, bringing more trouble to the Nightbreed than goodness. It all ends in a big battle between humans and monsters, full of great little touches as well as spectacle as the Breed use their powers like less attractive X-Men, though it’s weakened for many by the almost comical depictions of the humans as pretty all racist, murderous rednecks. I guess this was part of Barker’s point. When cops are gunning down children, the first thing I always think of is US Cavalry troops massacring Native Americans, for me the worst example of ethnic cleansing in history, but you can think of many similar historical and even current events. I suppose Barker could have found other, more subtle and more intelligent ways to show the cruelty of humankind, but I like the directness, the simplicity, the anger and the emotional honesty that runs throughout Nightbreed.
So, how different is the Director’s Cut? Well, it’s not actually that different at all really. If you’ve always thought Nightbreed was rubbish, the Director’s Cut won’t change your mind. If you thought it was really good, it’ll make it even better, but not that much better. It’s still very much the same film and certainly not the revelatory experience I had virtually been led to believe it would be. There are a few extra early moments involving the two lovers which are nice, most notably Lori singing in a club and Boone, under the influence of the LSD Decker has given him, imagining he’s making love to her. There’s a little more of Lori and Cheryl, the woman Lori meets who becomes slash fodder. Until the final quarter though, the majority of the new footage is different takes of scenes, some of which are so similar to their previous incarnations that it’s hard to understand why the studio wanted the alterations in the first place. Some of this new and alternate footage features music culled from other portions of the film, which is somewhat jarring if you know the film and score well. Elsewhere some scenes are in a slightly different order, but oddly, almost all the Decker footage is still in the film, even though some of it was shot at the insistence of the studios so I would have thought Barker would have cut some of it out. To be honest, while I was still enjoying Nightbreed like I used to, I was a little disappointed with what I imagined would be a very different version of it, a version that I thought may change a film I like very much though admit is quite flawed into something within shouting distance of masterpiece. For a start, if perhaps rather oddly, it still felt that there was some connective tissue missing!
However, towards the end things do change a bit more and entirely for the better. While there’s even more of that silly posse, and the extra monsters amount to just a few brief shots, the battle features much more brutality, one character literally loses his head which is a bit of a shock, and the whole subplot about the priest Father Ashbury is a bit different and informs the final scene, which still sets things up for a sequel but in a different way to the studio cut’s ending. However, what really is a surprise is an added end scene between Boone and Lori, a scene of both great tenderness and great power which both finishes their story and begins a new chapter in it in logical fashion and, while Craig Sheffer remains steadfastly wooden, it really shows how good Anne Bobby’s underrated performance [and in a way it’s the harder of the two roles] is in the film. The scene adds so much emotion to the whole story and I cannot believe for the life of me why Morgan Creek didn’t want this scene in it.
f you’ve never seen Nightbreed, the Director’s Cut is definitely the one to see, but if you have, don’t really expect anything earth-shattering except for maybe the final scene. The film’s pluses, and for me there are many – the inventiveness, the themes, the heart, the monsters, Decker, Elfman’s often darkly beautiful score [influenced, I think, by Bernard Herrmann’s score for Obsession, and introducing the choral sighs he would re-use in Edward Scissorhands and others] soundtrack, often based around a two-note motif but doing so much with it, Robin Vidgeon’s often evocative cinematography [though some matte paintings are now extremely obvious in HD!], and the skilful direction of Barker amongst them – remain plusses but aren’t really improved, while certain flaws – an overall messiness, narrative awkwardness, Sheffer, etc. – aren’t really diminished at all. Though it saddens me a little to say this, I don’t think that, overall, the Director’s Cut of Nightbreed will make the film more popular and respected. I’m still happy with it though, because I really, really liked Barker’s crazy fantasy and hymn to the misunderstood and the mistreated a hell of a lot in the first place, and it is even better now.